Blood was spurting all over Lenny “The Bruiser” Gigliotti’s clothes. He was not happy about the blood, but he was even less happy about Ray “Skippy” Delano having his knuckles crunched and twisted with pliers. Ray had been holding out on the boss, Vinnie, and Vinnie wasn’t happy. That was what brought about Vinnie ordering Nicky “The Claw” Ragoni to twist Ray’s knuckles with pliers in the first place. Vinnie Taducci was the undisputed boss of the entire west side of Chicago now that Al Capone and Frank Nitti were in jail and dead, respectively. Vinnie was much quieter and less obtrusive than either of his predecessors, so he was running booze, guns, and narcotics all up and down the East Coast without attracting the attention of anyone of consequence. He had taken over the Capone-Nitti police connections also, and as such, the police were practically working for him. As long as he didn’t step out of line in any big or obvious way, he had it made. But Ray Delano was caught skimming money from the liquor hauls and the Tommie-gun contracts to the tune of eighty G’s.
Ray regretted his stupidity at that moment, but there was nothing more he could do since he had already confessed to skimming. Now it was Vinnie’s turn to have his fun, and to make an example of Ray, all at the same time. Ray was yelling and squirming in his brown leather chair, and the blood was turning the brown leather an even darker shade.
“Please, Vinnie, please. I only skimmed because my old lady needs medication, and the kids have been suffering since she’s been in the hospital. I swear I would never skim for anything other than emergency. I had every intention of repaying the money. Please Vinnie, please, give me another chance, and I swear I’ll never skim from you again.” Vinnie looked at Ray’s twisting body, gave a casual glance at Nicky and then turned to look at Lenny, both of whom nodded in Ray’s favor; not so much because they liked him, but because they couldn’t bear to hear any more of his moaning and groaning. Vinnie let a few more minutes go by as blood continued to spill out onto the table. Ray wailed louder since Nicky hadn’t been given the okay to stop his torture. Finally, Vinnie looked back into Ray’s pleading eyes and slowly spoke.
“So, uh, why didn’t you just come to me and ask me for a loan, Ray? What, you didn’t think you could trust me? Me, of all people?” Ray twisted almost his whole body as the knuckle of his middle finger had been crushed to the bone. Lenny was having a hard time holding Ray down, even though Lenny was a good two hundred seventy pounds.
“Vinnie I was just stupid. I‘m sorry, I’m so sorry, I shoulda known better. Please, Vinnie, please. I swear, I’ll never skim from you again. Just give me one more chance.” Ray’s pleading was actually starting to annoy Vinnie, but he was feeling in a generous mood so he waved off Nicky, who instantly freed Ray’s knuckles. Lenny let go of Ray and stepped back to immediately wipe blood from his designer jacket and slacks. Ray almost collapsed onto the table, but immediately wrapped part of his shirttail around his wounded knuckles. Nicky had started on the first knuckle from the thumb, and worked his way down to the third knuckle from the thumb. Ray trembled as he tried to regain some composure and raise his head to face Vinnie.
“Okay here’s the deal. You don’t so much as sneeze without getting permission from me from now on. You got that Ray?”
“Yeah Vinnie, I swear I won’t ever step outta line again. I swear on my mother’s grave.” Vinnie looked around at the boys he had surrounding him and smiled a wicked smile.
“Okay then, get outta here. Go get yourself cleaned up.”
“Thanks, Vinnie. Thank you! I won’t forget,” Ray said, as he half-stumbled and was half-pushed out of the room by Lenny.
Ray staggered into the hall and then ran to the bathroom to tend to his hand. He was lucky Vinnie hadn’t ordered the same treatment for both hands to make sure the lesson sank in. Blood soaked his shirt and part of his pants. He was virtually certain that he’d have a hard time trying to explain to Bernice that he was caught skimming from Vinnie. She was still weak from her hospital stay, but even the money he skimmed from Vinnie didn’t last long enough to stave off the constant hospital bills she said were accumulating for her care. He wanted to clean himself up enough so that maybe Bernice wouldn’t notice his injuries. He didn’t want her knowing to what length he had gone to take care of her medical bills. And he didn’t want her worrying about anything other than getting better. Bernice had a strange blood ailment that weakened all of her vital organs. She had gotten progressively worse over the past year, but the past month had seen an even faster deterioration in her condition. Instead of being bed-ridden a few times a week, it had been at least once each day when she needed to lie down for several hours. And in the last few days before her hospitalization, she wasn’t even able to lift herself out of bed until mid-morning.
Ray vowed to stop her agony by any means necessary, but he knew he couldn’t do it by openly defying Vinnie and the gang. Maybe he could get a second job at the docks or working in some restaurant kitchen. But Vinnie would be certain and fast to think that Ray was working on some kind of scam, or inadvertently spilling his guts to the competition. Once you joined the organization, there was only one way out. And Vinnie would be all too happy to have Ray delivered into the afterlife. Ray rubbed his aching hand with the handkerchief Lenny threw at him shortly before being kicked out of Vinnie’s office. But it was going to take another half an hour at least for his hand to stop bleeding to the point where he could use it without re-opening the wounds. He cleaned the wounds and wrapped the wet handkerchief tightly around his hand and left the bathroom. The trip home took half an hour at least, and Bernice was sure to be asleep by the time he got home, so he would have time at home to redress his wounds if he needed to. He spent the drive home rehearsing what he would say to Bernice. He didn’t want to lie but he also didn’t want her first taste of reality of the trouble at work to be when his lifeless body showed up floating in the river. He made Vinnie almost mad enough to have him killed. Were it not for the fact that he was the best transportation manager Vinnie had ever known, he might already have taken up residence in the river wearing cement galoshes.
He parked the car in the usual place and tiptoed up the front walk. By the time he shut the front door, he realized that eyes were burning holes in the back of his head. Bernice was awake and already knew about Ray’s misfortune with Vinnie. She was poised to have a gentle talk with him, but Ray was expecting the worse. He took her in his arms and kissed her deeply, hoping to head off her argument at the pass.
“Honey, can I have a long talk with you?” he asked. She looked at him with a stern look that softened into a warm smile after a few seconds.
“Ray, sweetheart, you don’t have to sweet talk me. I know all about your run-in with Vinnie.”
“Honey, I can explain it all in about two minutes. I was trying to…” Bernice put her fingers lightly across Ray’s lips.
“Shuuuuuush! It’s okay. I know what you were trying to do. Ray, we’ve been married for sixteen years. Don’t you realize I know how you think by now? You’re the sweetest, most loving husband a woman could ever ask for. I’m just sorry you fell into cahoots with that Vinnie Taduuci when you two were kids. If you’d never gotten in with him, none of this would ever have happened.” Ray lowered his head in obvious shame, but Bernice caught it and lifted it to face her.
“Bernice, I’m really sorry I got us into all of this. Vinnie’s really mad at me. I don’t think I’ll ever regain his confidence.” He waited a minute and then looked at her with a puzzled look.
“Hey, wait a minute, how did you find out about it?”
“The wives talk you know” was all she had to say when he recalled that the boys were always bragging about what they had done at work, to their friends and family, so why was it unreasonable for the wives to do the same?
“It’s okay, Ray. It’s okay!” Bernice hugged her husband closely. Ray wanted to say something, but he was all out of thoughtful things to say.
“I’ll go to Vinnie and plead with him to let me work the docks in my off time until I have enough money to pay the hospital bills. He won’t trust me at first, but I’ll get down on my hands and knees if I have to. I never should have done this. Now, I’ve put you and the kids in danger. Vinnie won’t hesitate to hurt you to get to me, you know.” Bernice pulled Ray into the bedroom and sat him down on the bed next to her.
“Ray, you’ll do no such thing. I have some money saved up that I never told you about. We’ll be okay.” Ray smiled and patted her cheek certain that no amount of money Bernice had could possibly pay off the mounting medical bills.
“Honey, I know you’re tired. Rest a while and we’ll talk again later,” Ray said, as he kissed her lips passionately and helped her into bed. Bernice laid down letting Ray’s hands linger on her shoulders. She knew as she looked up into his eyes, that he would eventually give himself over to Vinnie in some errant way, and some how get himself killed just to save her; and she knew that she couldn’t allow that to happen. But the time to act had not yet come. She married Ray because of his kindness, gentleness and compassion, and in all of the time they were married, he had never changed. He always put her wants and needs ahead of his. He was a good husband and father, and after working as hard as he had for as many years as he had, he deserved a break.
Since Ray arrived home earlier than usual due to his talk with Vinnie, he had time to make dinner and set the table before the kids came home from school. They were usually out of school by three p.m., but had been staying after school at the neighbor lady’s house for the past few weeks to give Bernice some time to sleep and rest. Their neighbor Mrs. Kelton was a kindly older woman who had taken care of most of the kids in the neighborhood from time to time. She was a real help to Ray and Bernice by watching the kids at least until Ray got home around six-thirty p.m. But he called her and asked her to send the kids home early. It was just barely five p.m. when he already had dinner fixed and on the table. The kids walked in the door engaged in their usually folly, so they didn’t notice that their dad was cooking dinner instead of their mom.
“David, I told you, the first president of the United States was George Washington. How many times do I have to tell you that?” Dena asked. Dena was a precocious ten years old and her younger brother David was seven. They stumbled into the doorway carrying their schoolbooks with their jackets hanging halfway off their sleeves. That meant that they had been playing some kind of rough, cat and mouse game in the three blocks between Mrs. Kelton’s house and home.
“Mickey said the first president of the United States was Al Capone” was David’s reply to his sister’s admonishment.
“Well, I told you a million times, Mickey is a dummy, so don’t listen to anything he says. Isn’t that right, Mo...?” Dena’s words trailed off as she and David finally noticed that it was their dad standing over the stove in an apron instead of their mom.
Ray stopped wiping off the stove when the kids started into the house, so he was sprightly amused to see the looks on their faces.
“Your mom wasn’t feeling too well, so I decided to come home early and fix dinner. That okay with you two?”
“It’s fine, Dad, we’ve just never seen you in an apron,” David said, giggling and covering his face as Dena stifled a laugh.
“It’s okay, Dad, really,” Dena said, as she pushed her arm into her brother’s ribs trying to get him to stop laughing. But it really was a comical sight. Ray was just shy of six feet tall and almost two hundred pounds. He really did look a fright wearing a mauve apron with yellow posies all over it.
“Okay, okay, get over it you two. Go get cleaned up and then come to the table. I fixed spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread and fresh green beans for dinner.” Ray removed the apron and realized as he did, that he had never worn his wife’s apron before, but that he enjoyed cooking dinner. It sort of gave him time to decompress from his earlier ordeal. Within two minutes, he was at Bernice’s bedside. She was still asleep but woke softly to his touch.
“Honey, dinner’s ready.” Bernice almost jumped out of bed.
“Oh, good heavens, Ray, you didn’t have to do that. I would have fixed dinner.” He didn’t give her much of a chance for a rebuttal as he kissed her lips to hush her up.
“It’s okay, honey. I wanted to do something special. It’s fine, really.” She was very proud of how Ray was being brave and gallant, but Ray harbored a sad feeling in the back of his mind that he might not have very many more days left with her.
They walked into the kitchen holding hands as the kids were already seated and spreading napkins on their laps. Dena poured milk into everyone’s glasses, and David set extra napkins on the table. Ray helped Bernice get seated and then served the food on the table. Dinner that night was fun as everyone shared something about their day. When it was Ray’s turn, he told the family how he was hoping to move from Chicago within the next year to Florida where the weather was warmer. Bernice went along with Ray’s ploy, and the kids were properly fooled. In his heart of hearts, Ray really did want to move to Florida, but he just told the kids his story to keep the positive flow of the mood around the table. He hoped to never have to tell the kids that his boss might one day have him killed.
The kids went to bed happy that night, and he and Bernice spent a little extra time just talking.
“Ray, I don’t want you worrying about my hospital bills. I didn’t tell you this, but Uncle Carl said he would see to the whole thing.”
“Carl? Your Uncle Carl? Honey, you’ve never mentioned an Uncle Carl to me before. Who is he? How could he possibly pay eighty thousand dollars worth of bills?”
“I never mentioned him because he wasn’t really favored by my parents. He was kind of the self-made outcast in the family. Made a fortune in oil or some such thing in Europe. He hasn’t been back to the states in, oh, gosh, maybe ten or twelve years. But he showed up a few weeks back after Ma had written to him, and said he would take care of all the bills. I just got the word today.” She showed him the letter that she had received. Ray was stunned but a little excited.
“You mean I don’t have to get a second job?”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” Bernice said.
“Besides, I have some money from working that I’ve been saving all these years.” Ray smiled and caressed her cheek.
“Bernice, honey, you couldn’t possibly have saved much doing sewing and cleaning all these years.”
“It’s more than you might think,” she said, but Ray’s mind had already wandered off to thoughts of not having to do anything drastic to pay her bills.
The next day, Ray woke up with renewed enthusiasm. All he had to do was keep his nose clean at work and everything would be okay. By the time he got to the warehouse, he even felt good. His desk wasn’t piled up with shipping logs for anything late or missing. He did his daily walk through the warehouse and confirmed that the trucks were loaded properly. He spoke with a few of his drivers and found out that a shipment was lost on the night shift because it fell over the embankment of a highway overpass that was iced over. Vinnie was informed and although he wasn’t happy, the shipment was confirmed lost so there was nothing he could do about it except move the driver to another job. But oddly enough, that was the eleventh shipment that had been lost for the year. The losses cost Vinnie a fortune, but he was making an even larger fortune by not attracting attention to himself. He could have anyone he wanted whacked for anything, but even Vinnie had to use a fair amount of discretion in his affairs. Capone and Nitti routinely had people intimidated or killed for indiscretions, but Vinnie was thoroughly convinced that he was smarter, and he knew he could make the organization bigger than either of his predecessors.
Still, Ray was feeling good because the lost shipment didn’t occur on his watch, so he wasn’t to blame. But the morning meeting would be tense nonetheless since Vinnie was always in a foul mood when he was losing money. Ray grabbed the morning paper on his way up to Vinnie’s office and even stopped by his receptionist’s desk to make sure Vinnie’s morning coffee was fresh. As soon as he walked into Vinnie’s office he realized the mood was much less than pleasant.
“What are you smiling about?” Lenny asked him.
“Nothing, I’m just happy to be working with such great fellas,” Ray said, with a slowly diminishing smile. Vinnie turned around in his chair from being on a phone call and hung up the phone.
“My accountant tells me I’m out a couple of million since the beginning of the year. Can you believe that?” Vinnie asked, as he looked around the room. Ray gulped hard and rammed his back up against the wall.
“It wasn’t me Vinnie, I swear.” The rest of the guys in the room all started laughing. Vinnie had to wipe a smile from his face to be able to speak.
“Relax, Ray, we know it wasn’t you. It wasn’t anyone in particular. We’ve been losing money to accidents because the Feds are forcing us to take more and more unusual routes to ship our merchandise. We’ve been sending guys up through Canada and then back down again through Michigan just to avoid the heat in the New York area,” Vinnie explained. Ray relaxed his hunched shoulders as beads of sweat formed at the end of his hairline. His smile started to return a little.
“But you know, I think I gonna have to lean a little on Tony Mandollo. That creep has been giving the Feds the impression that I’m not really on the up and up,” Vinnie complained.
“Mandollo? Are you kidding? That clown has guys whacked daily. He should be the one looking over his shoulder at the Feds,” Nicky added. Vinnie looked at a few of his boys standing in the corner roughhousing with each other.
“Hey, you two freaking clowns get over to Tony’s place. Take a half-dozen of the boys and see if you can convince him to be a little more civil to me,” Vinnie commanded. The two guys in the corner nodded and left the room with haste. Ray was always uncomfortable even knowing that Vinnie was going to have someone leaned on, but it really made him uncomfortable hearing orders given to have someone whacked. Violence just wasn’t Ray’s style. He decided at exactly that moment, that he would have to leave the organization one way or another, and sooner rather than later.
“Sheesh, I tell you, there just ain’t no respect anymore. Used to be that guys would show a little respect, even if they was trying to move in on somebody.” Vinnie was blowing off steam in a room full of men who weren’t going to argue with him, and as such, the office was mostly quiet. Ray smiled and tried to lighten the mood.
“Well, at least there’s still some respect left between men and women.” The guys in the office all laughed loud and hard.
“What the hell are you taking about, Ray?” Lenny asked.
“My wife is a good woman. She’s always shown me respect, honor, and decency. A man would be hard pressed to find a woman as intelligent, loving, and as beautiful as my Bernice.”
“That mealy mouse little woman of yours is worth that kind of praise?” Nicky asked, with another laugh. Vinnie waved the guys off.
“Hey, now I was just trying to tell you boys about having respect. Ray’s got a right to his own opinion. But if you ask me, no woman is worth that much respect. Now, don’t get me wrong, women have their reputable uses, but they aren’t much help in areas of business. Hell, I can’t even get a good day’s work outta my receptionist Stella.”
“Yeah, but boss, she sure is a hot one,” Lenny said with a hard laugh.
“Well, my Bernice worked as an accountant before we got married. She held her own job until our wedding day. Hell, we even paid for our wedding a year in advance on what she was making.”
“That why you were skimming money, Ray? To take care of your accountant wife? Sounds to me like she ain’t worth too much to you anymore. She almost got you killed,” Nicky stated.
“That’s water under the bridge, Vinnie, and you know it,” Ray said, in as upset a manner as he had been known to have. Vinnie nodded his head agreeing that it was time to lay off Ray.
“That’s nice, Ray. We’re all real happy that you got a smart and lovin’ wife, but now it’s time to get down to business. Okay, what are we going to do about these shipments of merchandise that keep getting lost?” Vinnie asked, as he looked around the room. Ray took a seat and pulled out his travel ledger. Nicky and Lenny hardly ever sat even for meetings, so Vinnie and Ray sat face to face across his desk while Lenny and Nicky looked on.
“Boss, I’ve got an idea. What if we asked around at some of the grocery stores to see if they needed help with their transportation needs? Then we could legitimately ship stuff intermittently using their trucks. Say, every third delivery we could ship our stuff mixed in with theirs. I mean, using our guys and their trucks, we could clean up and be able to drive straight through the center of any town,” Ray said, as he offered his solution to the trucking problem. Vinnie nodded without saying anything as he thought the idea through. Nicky and Lenny surprisingly had to nod their heads in approval too, since Ray’s idea was such a good one, and one that had not occurred to anyone before.
Vinnie slapped the desk as if he had a real epiphany.
“Yeah! That’s a great idea Ray. I tell you what, you make this plan work and I’ll give you a bonus of eighty G’s. Ray’s eyes lit up and Nicky and Lenny both snapped almost to attention as if Ray instantly commanded respect. Ray didn’t have to ask Vinnie if he meant it. He knew that he did. But Ray also knew that if and when he made the eighty G’s, he’d pack up the house and the family and leave town for Florida exactly as he had always dreamed. Eighty thousand dollars would buy him and the family a new identity so that Vinnie would never know how or where to catch up with him.
“Okay, how soon can you make the arrangements for the new shipping protocol?” Vinnie asked. Ray was still so stunned to be acknowledged gratefully that it took him a moment to speak.
“Uh, I can maybe get everything in place within four weeks. Is that okay?” Vinnie took a few minutes to think and then nodded. He immediately picked up the phone and started to make calls. That meant the meeting was over so Ray took his leave and went back to work in the warehouse.
The next day, Ray was surprised when he arrived late at work to see police cars surrounding the building, and the warehouse locked down by federal agents tearing crates apart. He stood sheepishly across the street, with his hands in his pockets like a little boy just caught with his hands in a cookie jar, just staring as people were being lead out of the building. Nicky, Lenny, and Vinnie were among the first to be lead into the long line of paddy wagons in shackles. Even Stella, Vinnie’s receptionist was escorted into the back seat of a police car. All of Ray’s workers and drivers filled several of the rest of the paddy wagons. He just couldn’t believe that getting up late and getting to work late would have kept him from being sent to jail. He had nothing more to do than to climb back into the car and drive home. When he got home, Bernice was sitting at the kitchen table in her bathrobe and pajamas. He was surprised not to find her in bed.
“Honey, what in the world are you doing up so early? Are you feeling okay? Is there anything wrong?” Ray’s concern made him forget for a moment about his own worries. Ray kneeled at her feet and put his arm around her waist. Bernice smiled her usual warm smile and ran her hand along the side of his face.
“I’m all better Ray,” she said plainly. Ray couldn’t quite believe what he had heard, so he blinked rapidly just staring at her.
“You’re all better? But how? How could you just all of a sudden…” Bernice put her finger to his lips.
“I’m all better, my love. Everything’s all better. Isn’t it?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that exactly. You see I’m home from work early because the warehouse got raided. Vinnie and the boys all got arrested. The cops and the Feds closed down the warehouse, hell they closed down the whole operation. They even carried out the file cabinets. I’d say we don’t have to worry about me working for Vinnie anymore. But I’m outta work, darling. I don’t know how soon I’ll be able to get another job.” Bernice would have been happy to let Ray go on explaining things that no longer mattered, but she wanted so desperately for her love to stop worrying.
“Ray, I’ve got something I need to tell you.” She took a long breath as he waited.
“Vinnie got arrested because I told the cops about everything he was doing. I told them everything about him sending boys over to rough up Tony Mandollo. I told them everything about him re-routing his shipments through Canada, and how he was planning on having all kinds of other things done; all of them illegal.” Ray slowly stood and tried to speak, but his open mouth and dry throat combined to conspire against him. He blinked his eyes rapidly in his characteristic way when he couldn’t fathom something simple spoken to him.
“Honey, what in the world are you talking about? Are you trying to tell me that YOU really turned Vinnie in to the police? But how? In fact, you’ve never even been to the office or the warehouse. How in the world could you possibly know so much about Vinnie’s business?”
“Well, Stella and I have known each other since we were kids. When she went to work for Vinnie, I asked her to keep an eye on you. Well, she kept more than an eye on you. She kept an eye on everything. She told me how Vinnie was a pig with her, and how he was always demeaning her. So we hatched a plan to put him out of business.”
“Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. You and Stella got Vinnie put away?” Ray laughed almost hysterically for a moment before returning his attention back to Bernice.
“Yes, and that’s not all. His business has been shut down for good. His entire inventory has been confiscated. He’s in for twenty years or more.” Bernice stopped to give Ray a chance to let what she’d told him sink in. Ray’s wide smile softened into a steady frown.
“Honey, I’m so proud of you for being so brave and so bold, but you realize that I’m out of work and won’t be able to take care of much around here until I get a job. Who knows how long that will be.”
“You can relax about that too, darling. I told you I’ve been saving up for a while.” Bernice got up and walked over to a small drawer near the end of the kitchen counter next to the living room and pulled out a small billfold. She handed it to Ray as she pulled him down to sit next to her.
“I think you’ll need to sit down for this,” she said, as he read the inside of the billfold. Ray’s eyes got big and again he wanted to speak without words coming.
“Eleven million dollars? Where in the world did you get eleven…?” Rays words stopped in his throat as he remembered how much Vinnie told him had been lost to errant shipments.
“So, there really is no Uncle Carl, is there?”
“And this illness you’ve had for over a year isn’t real either?”
“Well, I really did get sick at first. The week-long stay in the hospital was for my gall bladder. But I’ve been well ever since. I just needed a reason and a way to read through all of Vinnie’s business and tax documents at a relaxed pace. Stella helped a lot with that.”
“But I saw Stella arrested with the rest of the boys.”
“The Feds had to make it look like they were taking everyone in. They even told Vinnie and the rest of the guys that you were arrested and sent to prison in Baltimore. You’re off the hook, honey. You’re off the hook for life.”
“Honey, I don’t know what to say,” Ray admitted. Bernice smiled at him.
“That’s right, my love. Florida here we come. We’re rich! Courtesy of a one Mr. Vinnie Taducci.”